Ted Newsom (Part 1)
When I asked Ted Newsom, director of The Naked Monster, for an interview in September 2006, I didn't expect the extraordinary level of detail and fount of great stories that he sent back.
Jump straight to Part 2 of this very long interview
When you started making the film, how long did you expect it to take, and at what point did you realise that this was not going to be the case?
“From the time I first interviewed actor Ken Tobey in 1978, I wanted to do a send-up of ‘50s sci-fi monster films. I told him, ‘One of these days, I want to make a movie where you’re an old military guy, and some punk comes up with a way to kill the monster, and you say, “Son, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve been fighting monsters since before you were born.”’ He smiled and said, sure.
“I’d always loved Tobey’s work. Whirlybirds was one of my favourite shows, and I’ve got this wonderful prenatal connection to The Thing - my mom and dad went to see it in Portland, Oregon before I was born - hell, I think it was before I was conceived. And they remember at one point, a big guy, a seven-foot giant, rose up from his seat and walked up to get popcorn. Everybody screamed. I’m sure it was a plan, a William Castle type ballyhoo gag.
“I wrote at least three or four variations on the script over the next few years, the constants being setting at least some of the story in the desert a la Jack Arnold’s films, the other being Tobey as a grumpy old Patrick Hendry. I know now that all of those scripts were flawed (the same could be said for the final film, I suppose), but the central idea never radically changed. It was going to be Airplane meets Godzilla. On an Ed Wood budget. And there’d be a grumpy, retired monster-fighter.
“I put together a reunion of The Thing in 1982 because the remake was coming out. There was a screening at the Fox Theater in Venice, California, and we had Ken there, and Robert Cornthwaite, Bill Self, Chris Nyby (who flew in from Hawaii for it), George Fenneman, several of the tech crew guys, and the husband of Margaret Sheridan and their two daughters. Maggie had died about three months earlier.
“In 1984, a guy bet me I couldn’t do a movie for $2,500. I hauled out the old scripts, took gags and lines, and did 25 page script, which condensed things to manageable size. That version of the project was designed as a half-hour short which could be shot in about four weekends (plus the time for effects). On that basis, I asked Wayne Berwick to direct it, since I was ‘producing’ (I put it in quotes, because I never saw myself as a cigar-chomping William Castle type) and had drawn the storyboards for both the live action and effects shots. I had enough to do. I also wanted to snare actors Les Tremayne and John Harmon, who were close friends with the Berwick family. Wayne’s dad Irv had been one of my teachers (Irv made Monster of Piedras Blancas), and I thought the request would be stronger if it came with that pedigree. And Wayne had done things I hadn’t, like actually directing a feature (Microwave Massacre) and a neat little short called The Shooter. Both of those were a lot slicker than any little films I’d ever done, and he’s great on a personal and technical level.
“I rewrote the female lead with references to Brinke Stevens in mind, and I knew she’d begun a career in marine biology before modelling and acting. For the early drafts I had my pal Ron Wilson in mind as a deputy sheriff, a sort of comic-relief character, which you probably don’t need in a comedy, but what the hell. Knowing his enthusiasm and improv comedy talent - and his availability - I rewrote the script with him as the male lead, the handsome, stalwart sheriff instead. The Rex Reason part, or Charles McGraw. The gag being that Ron looks nothing like that. The third corner of the triangle was a Richard Carlson investigator who thinks he’s 007-cool. I asked John Goodwin, ‘Do you want to be in a monster movie with Kenneth Tobey?’ That was all it took.
“The motivation for doing the film was threefold. First, I wanted to make the movie for years. Second, all of us younger sorts needed film on ourselves, and this would make a neat portfolio piece for everybody. And third, I wanted to do a tribute to Gene Lourie and Jack Arnold, both of whom I knew, and both of whom were very, very ill. Jack had had a leg amputated, Gene had had several severe strokes, and I wanted to do something that would make them laugh and understand we loved their stuff. As we were doing it, there was the thought that this might lead to pitching the project as a ‘real’ movie, if anybody got the jokes.
“So within the original parameters, what we started to do could’ve been shot in about eight or nine days, so, three or four weekends, over the summer of 1984.
“Originally, the idea was to do a film that would visually emulate something you’d see at 3.00am on a UHF channel: black and white, scratched, grainy, muddy sound. We shot on Super-8 film stock, primarily for cheapness (16mm would’ve cost about four times as much), but also because the image would roughly match the grainy, dupey 16mm stock footage. I killed the colour-burst on the videotape early on, though our film footage (except for the effects shots) was on colour stock. I never wanted to shoot on tape, since it would have looked like tape, not film.
“My then-partner John Brancato and I got a job writing Spider-Man for Cannon. During that time, Cannon announced a project called It Ate Cleveland, which was the same spoof concept, but it had nothing to do with our film; no one had seen it. I did discuss our project with one of the execs there, trying to convince them that ours would be funnier, or at least get better press because of the cast (a la Cannon’s House of Long Shadows). I didn’t think their script was funny, but I knew the market for giant-monster spoofs was slim, and if they did one, ours would be dead in the water. As it turned out, they didn’t do theirs, of course. And naturally, I poured my Spider-Man money back into finishing our monster movie.
“Overall, there were about 18 days of shooting, though a lot of those were days in which we’d shoot for two hours then quit. The animation effects took about four or five months. That version was essentially finished in late 1984. We had the first screening at a now-gone place in West Hollywood called EZTV. Agar was there, Robert Shayne, and about forty people. Shayne was in his eighties, nearly blind and hard of hearing, sitting right in front. About a half-hour into it, he turned to his wife Betty and said (loudly enough for everyone to hear), ‘Is there a plot to this?!?!’ That got a laugh, and it should have told me something. But we got laughs at the right places, and people clapped and cheered when the boys helped Ken Tobey on with his old monster-fighting suit. As far as that version of the concept, it was finished.
“In the wake of that was: ‘Okay, what now?’ We were all jazzed that this could be a ‘real’ movie, that we could pitch it to a company and do it on some sort of real budget, with 35mm film instead of Super-8, real crowds instead of stock shots, and so on. I sent a few copies out and got nice reactions. Leonard Maltin wrote back an encouraging letter (from which I pulled a quote for our box years later). Joe Dante got a kick out of it and said, ‘You ought to cut it down to 20 minutes and send it out on video.’ That hurt, because it indicated it was too long (and he was right). Joe, as you know, later did the same sort of film within Matinee, using Bob Cornthwaite as a scientist.
“Off and on, we pitched a professional remake of it to several places, with near-success, only to have the rug pulled out from beneath us each time. Soon after the one-hour version was finished, we had a very ‘up’ meeting at CAA, one of the hottest agencies in Hollywood, with a fledgling agent named Richard Lovette, who went on to be the company president. He wanted to package us and the project with one or the other of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker boys from Airplane, who were going their three separate ways. He asked how soon I could deliver a feature-length script and I - foolishly - said, ‘Two weeks.’ I should have said six, or eight, or whatever. But I hurriedly did an expanded script based on the material we had, and frankly, it wasn’t very good as a script. Lots of gags, but not a lot of plot or character.
“A while later we pitched it at New World, which would have been perfect. The executive we dealt with, Tony Randell, was the guy who thought of using Raymond Burr in Godzilla 1985, and Tony got the jokes. The production head was Steve White, a brilliant, funny guy, who in fact was an old mate of Ron Wilson’s back in their improv comedy days. And it was going to happen - except that another executive at New World, Margaret Lescher, thought a sequel to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes would be a better shot. They did that instead, and from many aspects, she was right. That was a funny movie, and spun off into a profitable TV show for them. Pissed us off, though.
“We were about to make it at Trans World, where the script coverage (the classified in-house synopsis and analysis) was very positive. Their head of production was Paul Mason, who ALSO got the jokes. His first gig was writing the script for the US inserts for King Kong Vs Godzilla. Paul was receptive, and among other things, suggested Marie Windsor for a role, which was right in line with my thinking. Instead, Trans World did Killer Klowns from Outer Space. You notice a pattern here?
“There was a producer who’d worked with Crown International, Mike Castle, who had me and John Brancato rewrite the script. I don’t know how serious he was in pitching it. Via Mike, there was yet another producer, an older guy named Vernon Becker, whose most notable credit was Dagmar’s Hot Pants for AIP, and Nocturna, which… well. He thought it would be a perfect vehicle for Don Ameche as the old monster fighter. ‘He’s the right age, and he just won the Academy Award!’ I felt he was unclear on the concept. The point wasn’t that the character was old, the point was people like Ken Tobey would bring the same air of verisimilitude to the project as John Wayne brought to The Shootist.
"Another pair of guys pushed it for a while, Bill Blaylock and Peter Rae, who had made Grandview USA with Jamie Lee Curtis, which was a terrific little film. Again, I rewrote the script to incorporate their suggestions, we cut a promo trailer from the footage we had - and again this went nowhere. And Luigi Cingolani, the guy who produced Spaced Invaders, had it for a while, wanting to do the monster effects in CGI, which was just then coming to the fore. I thought that was way too high tech for the concept and by that time I didn’t want to rewrite the script for the tenth time. He hired a young guy named Robert Coffee to do a rewrite. He’d done uncredited work on a Troma film, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD. He came up with some funny gags, but off-point as far as I was concerned. And that went nowhere. I didn’t end up using anything Robert added, but he was a nice guy. I later suggested him as a writer and he got a magazine gig or two.”
In choosing the footage from films and trailers, did you know what you wanted and where to find it, or did you ‘browse’ movies looking for clips that could be used in some way?
“I knew that most pre-1978 trailers and a lot of older features were in the public domain, and figured this would be the only way to get some ‘scope’ to what was otherwise a little backyard film. A friend of mind, Eric Hoffman, had a collection of about five or six hours’ worth of 16mm monster trailers, and I borrowed them all and transferred them to tape, figuring how to use it in conjunction with new live action or effects shots. Some of the stuff was generic, like crowds fleeing or things exploding, but the best stuff was specific action which indicated possible funny variations. For instance, there’s a bit in the Gorgo trailer where the ranting religious nut with a signboard gets trampled by the crowd. Okay, a line of voiceover and it becomes: ‘Scientology! Scientology! Get your free personality test - Aaaggghhh!’
"Likewise the crowd fleeing over the bridge in Reptilicus. We did a shot of Ron as the sheriff calmly directing the frightened crowd in the correct screen direction, right to left, to match the stock shot, and set up the gag with one line of dialogue (‘Stay calm! Everybody! Over the bridge!’). In that shot, by the way, I’m one of two guys running in the background carrying a sofa. We shot that in an alley behind the effects guy’s house, and someone had thrown the couch away. It just struck me as goofy that two guys in a crowd would take the time to steal furniture at a time like that. There was a lot of military footage from the 1950s, which was designed to be in the public domain from get-go. So a lot of our fleeing crowds, the atomic bomb, cannons, tanks, was courtesy of the US Government.
“The good part about shooting in black and white was that the stock footage became slightly less obvious, but only slightly. That changed in The Naked Monster, of course, since we were dealing with colour. Abe Lim, who was the colourist and a good film maker in his own right - he made the film Roads and Bridges - did a yeoman job balancing the 10,000 different colours and film stocks. I don’t know that the haphazard mismatching of types of stock shots would work in any other type of film. Here, at least, there was a precedent. Stock footage from that era is usually incredibly obvious, like in Invaders from Mars and Plan 9.
“I went overboard, the equivalent of over-writing with imagery. I’d see a stock shot and then ask the effects guy to do a monster-turn to match it, often, with no particular funny thing in mind, just more destruction. While we were editing, it was Ron Wilson’s comment that got me back on track. He said, ‘It’s not funny. It’s just the monster knocking over another building.’ So at that stage - late 1984 - we cut the running time down by about 15 insufferable minutes.”
By the same token, how did you know when the film was finished? Were there intermediate cuts produced during those decades that you weren’t happy with?
“For kicks, about 1992, I slop-edited a version of the old show together using the original colour footage, although the FX shots were still in black and white. I wanted to see if it looked any good. That stuff was from a VHS copy done at a photo store, and looked dreadful. And by the time I dealt with Cingolani’s company, Cinergi, I felt like I was letting myself fall in love with the same woman over and over again, Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. Every time, every damned time. Never again. I just tried to put the project out of my head and moved onto other things. By then I had a stock footage business, I was doing documentaries like 100 Years of Horror and Flesh and Blood, and I needed to move on. Several of the older actors had died, like Bob Shayne and John Harmon, which was disheartening. Ken Tobey was 67 in ’84 when we shot his footage and his back was already in bad shape. By 1994, he was using a walker. So shooting a remake was just impossible, at least with the cast I wanted - my original cast. I considered trying to colourise the animation shots, but by then the effects guy and I weren’t talking, and getting him to generate new footage was as much out of the question as paying $5,000 a minute to colourise old Super-8 black and white film.
“I drove by a place called Super-8-Sound every day on the way to work, and stopped in one afternoon. I saw a sample reel of stuff they’d done, transferring Super-8 film to tape on a high-end Rank Telecine apparatus. It looked great, as good as 16mm, so I decided to re-transfer all of the old footage. I already had the heart of a movie in the original footage, and the cast of veteran character actors I wanted. I had the notion to reunite the three principals for some new scenes, and I’d shoot all-new effects. I’d spent several thousand dollars on the transfer, and additional dough on toys and props and miniatures, having gotten all three to shoot for a week at SAG low-budget scale. As it turned out, my pals Ron and John abruptly decided they were busy after committing to it. Brinke stuck with her word, and I rewrote the new material around her character. Other gags that I’d envisioned giving to Ron and John’s characters, I just did with two anonymous guys (most of which I ended cutting out, anyway.)
“I paid JR Bookwalter a small chunk of change for the use of editing facilities, long enough to sync all the sound back up to the BetaSP video masters. Every goddamned line had to be individually placed, since we recorded with a separate audio recorder (or, later, a video camera) and it never, ever stayed in sync with the film image. Even know, there are plenty of places where the sync is a little wonky.
“Editing was always going to be a problem, because I didn’t have the equipment. I slop-edited the VHS copies together at home, but that’s problematic. This was before you could buy cheap editing systems. But when my friend Dave DeCoteau introduced me to Charlie Band and I started working for him; that gave me access to their editing system, which was absolutely first rate, high end, and cost nothing. I did a lot of the effects there myself, through trial and error. The errors are usually apparently in the final film. Given that a system like that usually rents for about $200 or $300 an hour and I worked on the movie for months, I got quite a deal.
“When I made the distribution deal with Chuck Adleman of Anthem Pictures, I asked if we could use his editing system to cut the 100 minutes down even further. His editor, JT, pushed the buttons, I gave the orders. In four hours, we cut out 16 minutes. Cutting the longer of Gloria Talbott’s two scenes hurt, because she was such a funny, bright woman. Of course, I hated to lose effects shots, like the whole Titanic and submarine sequences, but they just slowed the story down - such as it was. I didn’t really think the job was finished until I saw the finished DVD box. I’ve still got this sight gag I want to do with Kevin McCarthy. No, stop. I’m done. Finished.”
Continue to Part 2 of this very long interview, where Ted recounts more stories about The Naked Monster and also discusses some of his other work.